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Optimal Defaults and Active Decisions

  • Carroll, Gabriel D.
  • Choi, James J.
  • Laibson, David I.
  • Madrian, Brigitte
  • Metrick, Andrew

Defaults often have a large influence on consumer decisions. We identify an overlooked but practical alternative to defaults: requiring individuals to make an explicit choice for themselves. We study such “active decisions†in the context of 401(k) saving. We find that compelling new hires to make active decisions about 401(k) enrollment raises the initial fraction that enroll by 28 percentage points relative to a standard opt-in enrollment procedure, producing a savings distribution three months after hire that would take 30 months to achieve under standard enrollment. We also present a model of 401(k) enrollment and derive conditions under which the optimal enrollment regime is automatic enrollment (i.e., default enrollment), standard enrollment (i.e., default non-enrollment), or active decisions (i.e., no default and compulsory choice). Active decisions are optimal when consumers have a strong propensity to procrastinate and savings preferences are highly heterogeneous. Financial illiteracy, however, favors default enrollment over active decision enrollment.

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Paper provided by Harvard University Department of Economics in its series Scholarly Articles with number 4686776.

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Date of creation: 2009
Date of revision:
Publication status: Published in Quarterly Journal of Economics -Cambridge Massachusetts-
Handle: RePEc:hrv:faseco:4686776
Contact details of provider: Postal: Littauer Center, Cambridge, MA 02138
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Fax: 617-495-7730
Web page: http://www.economics.harvard.edu/

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  1. John Beshears & James Choi & David Laibson & Brigitte Madrian, 2008. "Simplification and Saving," Yale School of Management Working Papers amz2392, Yale School of Management.
  2. Mark Aguiar & Erik Hurst, 2004. "Consumption vs. Expenditure," NBER Working Papers 10307, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  3. O'Donoghue, Ted & Rabin, Matthew, 1997. "Doing It Now or Later," Department of Economics, Working Paper Series qt7t44m5b0, Department of Economics, Institute for Business and Economic Research, UC Berkeley.
  4. James J. Choi & David Laibson & Brigitte C. Madrian, 2011. "$100 Bills on the Sidewalk: Suboptimal Investment in 401(k) Plans," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 93(3), pages 748-763, August.
  5. Richard H. Thaler & Cass R. Sunstein, 2003. "Libertarian Paternalism," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 93(2), pages 175-179, May.
  6. Abadie, Alberto & Gay, Sebastien, 2004. "The Impact of Presumed Consent Legislation on Cadaveric Organ Donation: A Cross Country Study," Working Paper Series rwp04-024, Harvard University, John F. Kennedy School of Government.
  7. James J. Choi & David Laibson & Brigitte C. Madrian, 2010. "Why Does the Law of One Price Fail? An Experiment on Index Mutual Funds," Review of Financial Studies, Society for Financial Studies, vol. 23(4), pages 1405-1432, April.
  8. Laibson, David I., 1997. "Golden Eggs and Hyperbolic Discounting," Scholarly Articles 4481499, Harvard University Department of Economics.
  9. Carroll, Gabriel D. & Choi, James J. & Laibson, David I. & Madrian, Brigitte & Metrick, Andrew, 2009. "Optimal Defaults and Active Decisions," Scholarly Articles 4686776, Harvard University Department of Economics.
  10. Richard H. Thaler & Shlomo Benartzi, 2004. "Save More Tomorrow (TM): Using Behavioral Economics to Increase Employee Saving," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 112(S1), pages S164-S187, February.
  11. Engen, Eric & Gale, William & Uccello, Cori, 1999. "The Adequacy of Household Saving," MPRA Paper 56442, University Library of Munich, Germany.
  12. Erik Hurst, 2004. "Grasshoppers, Ants and Pre-Retirement Wealth: A Test of Permanent Income Consumers," Working Papers wp088, University of Michigan, Michigan Retirement Research Center.
  13. James J. Choi & David Laibson & Brigitte C. Madrian & Andrew Metrick, 2001. "For Better or For Worse: Default Effects and 401(k) Savings Behavior," NBER Working Papers 8651, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  14. James J. Choi & David Laibson & Brigitte C. Madrian & Andrew Metrick, 2001. "Defined Contribution Pensions: Plan Rules, Participant Decisions, and the Path of Least Resistance," NBER Working Papers 8655, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  15. Brigitte C. Madrian & Dennis F. Shea, 2000. "The Power of Suggestion: Inertia in 401(k) Participation and Savings Behavior," NBER Working Papers 7682, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  16. Henrik Cronqvist & Richard H. Thaler, 2004. "Design Choices in Privatized Social-Security Systems: Learning from the Swedish Experience," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 94(2), pages 424-428, May.
  17. Mark J. Warshawsky & John Ameriks, . "How Prepared Are Americans for Retirement?," Pension Research Council Working Papers 98-11, Wharton School Pension Research Council, University of Pennsylvania.
  18. Richard H. Thaler & Shlomo Benartzi, 2001. "Naive Diversification Strategies in Defined Contribution Saving Plans," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 91(1), pages 79-98, March.
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